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Back again then, to the same old tiny sweltering hot anteroom of a Westminster curry house for yet another leadership campaign launch. Penny Mordaunt this time, with Andrea Leadsom introducing her. Six years ago, on almost the same day, in the same room, it was the same thing, only the other way around.
And, yet again, we’d hear another razor-sharp diagnosis of all of the country’s problems, and how they could all be solved but maybe, you know, just maybe. Maybe the problem isn’t the country. Maybe the reason everything’s so hopelessly buggered and that there’s a very strong sense of never-ending chaos – maybe the problem isn’t the prime minister, or the one before, or the one before that?
Maybe it’s just the Tory party itself? Maybe it’s just a completely and utterly dysfunctional party of straightforwardly malign intent?
According to Penny Mordaunt, the problem with the Tory party is that it “lost its sense of self”. She had the temerity to compare it to Paul McCartney’s Glastonbury set. “We indulged all those new tunes, but the thing we really wanted to hear was the good old stuff that we all knew the words to.”
Naturally it’s hard to know where to even start with this kind of thing, but it has already been pointed out that in a two and half hour set Paul McCartney played 35 songs, of which five were recorded this century, one in 1981, and all of the rest before 1975.
But that’s not really the point. The main point is that Paul McCartney is quite possibly the single most loved British thing on the planet and his Glastonbury set has been instantly revered as arguably the greatest in Glastonbury history. Meanwhile the Tory party is having its third leadership contest in the last six years, spurred on by ever clearer polling evidence that the public now absolutely loathes them.
Penny Mordaunt reckons what’s required is a return to the Tory greatest hits: “Low tax, small state, personal responsibility.”
Whereas around the country, people are crying out, quite literally in agony, about how the NHS is completely dysfunctional, about how they can’t pay their energy bills, how they can’t afford to buy food. The entire point of what’s happening to the Tory party is that the country absolutely 100 per cent do not want to hear their greatest hits anymore. They’ve heard them enough.
The Tory party is not an instantly iconic Glastonbury set. It’s a horrific avant-gardist modern art installation of a child screaming in agony played out on loop in a pop-up gallery on a failed high street, sandwiched between a bookies and vape shop for years and years and years and years.
Make the state any smaller and people won’t even know it’s there. How are people meant to take “personal responsibility” over forces entirely beyond their control, namely energy prices, which are utterly crushing their lives?
For this, there was no answer to be found. There were only words. There were words on how proud she had been to watch the “Falklands Task Force set sail from Plymouth” when she was nine years old. “This,” she said, “was a country that stands up to bullies.”
Penny Mordaunt rejoined the government in the September 2021 reshuffle. It was, it would appear, of little concern to her that she was joining a government whose ethics adviser, Alex Allan, had had no choice but to resign, because he had concluded the home secretary, Priti Patel, had bullied her staff, and the prime minister chose to ignore his findings.
Maybe the country did stand up to bullies, 40 years ago. Maybe Margaret Thatcher did show courage to start a war with Argentina. In rather more recent times, however, it seems Ms Mordaunt found she didn’t quite have the courage to stand up to bullies, not if it would involve turning down a very minor promotion to a junior ministerial position at the Department for International Trade (DIT).
All this, by the way, was merely a warm up to what may have been Boris Johnson’s final PMQs but nobody’s quite sure. That began with the speaker Lindsay Hoyle going instantly apoplectic and kicking out the two Alba MPs, for refusing to sit down and stop heckling Mr Johnson as he walked in, his rage only slightly undermined by his voice cracking midway through and instantly raising itself by at least a full octave. (Alba are Alex Salmond’s SNP splinter group, in case you’ve got the good fortune never to have heard of them.)
There is, as ever, nothing of interest to say about Mr Johnson’s PMQs. All bluff, all bluster, and all over very soon indeed. Keir Starmer chose to make his first three questions about non-dom tax status, a not even thinly-veiled attack on Rishi Sunak. Before the session had even ended, Mr Sunak had fired back on social media, with a twee graphic about how Labour is only attacking him because they “fear him the most”.
Said graphic pointed out that Mr Sunak is the only Tory candidate currently more popular than Starmer. There was a certain amount of devil in the detail though, principally that he really was boasting about being “ahead by one”, ie a single percentage point. Because two long years in Downing Street, and careful stewardship of a rolling bin fire of an economy, surely won’t eradicate that single point advantage.
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Mr Sunak, naturally, is not the only candidate to be claiming to be the candidate Labour most fears. Ms Mordaunt said it as well. The exact same words. No doubt Liz Truss will tomorrow.
But it’s very hard indeed to see any reason why Labour should fear any of them. Voters can very clearly see, in the words of Sajid Javid (though he was describing Boris Johnson at the time), that there’s only so many times you can turn the machine off and on again.
The public, above all else, are bored of the relentless Tory psychodrama, mainly because it is set in a faraway land that none of them understand. Where the massive, right here and now problems they face will somehow be solved by stripping everything away even more.
It is of course entirely possible Ms Mordaunt was thinking of the wrong “iconic” moment from this year’s Glastonbury. There was, after all, the incident in the VIP hospitality area where a lavatory suction pump malfunctioned and sprayed lunchtime diners with what they have since described as “hundreds of pints of faeces”. That thing only went off for barely seconds. The Tory leadership contest still has almost a full two months to go.